DCN-2004-02 June 13, 2004

JOHNNY LIGHTNING: TEN YEARS AND CHANGE

A TOP FLIGHT TOY COMPANY CELEBRATES TEN YEARS OF BUSINESS AND BEGINS A NEW CHAPTER

By Rudy Panucci for Mastercollector.com

Over the last decade, Johnny Lightning was the complete package in collectible Die Cast. First, it was a great nostalgia reproduction. Then it became a flagship premium die-cast company with new toolings that raised the bar for 1:64 scale cars. Today, after ten years of bringing joy to collectors, Playing Mantis, Johnny Lightning's parent company, is looking at a new challenge as they join the RC2 family of companies, leaving behind their independent status, but pledging to maintain their high standards as a toy company.

As this article was being prepared, there were rumblings about Playing Mantis being acquired by another company. Along with much anxiety about what this might mean for quality and diversity, and if the new owners would have the level of dedication that Playing Mantis' founder Thomas Lowe had, an official announcement was finally made that RC2, the company that owns Racing Champion, Ertl, and AMT Models had purchased Playing Mantis, but that Thomas Lowe would be taking a seat on the board and would still be involved in the overseeing Playing Mantis.

This came as a relief to many toy collectors, who had feared that a new owner might just dismantle Playing Mantis, or discard their non-die cast divisions that produce action figures and model kits. Now that we know that the company will remain intact for some time, we can cover the real point of this article. The revived Johnny Lightning line is TEN YEARS OLD! Playing Mantis has some terrific celebrations planned.

Playing Mantis is a leader in the creation and manufacturing of nostalgic toys, as well as forefront in creating new, modern collectibles. Like many great companies, Playing Mantis came from a love of two things - die-cast cars and childhood dreams. The name "Playing Mantis" embodies the playful spirit of youth, as well as a catchy name for a toy company. As a boy, Tom Lowe, founder of Playing Mantis, loved to catch and play with praying mantises. Liking the way the words sounded, and creating a whimsical mascot to embody the feel of the company, Playing Mantis was born.

In 1993, Tom was searching for new ventures for Playing Mantis. One afternoon while at a friend's house, Tom was thumbing through Toy Shop (a collector's magazine) and was surprised by the price collectors were offering for 1960s and early '70s die-cast cars that Tom used to race and collect. At that point, Tom decided to start collecting a variety of die-cast cars, many of which he remembered from his childhood. In one transaction, Tom acquired a variety of cars from a dealer on the East coast. Within the lot were 20 Johnny Lightning cars. Once he had those in hand, he knew that it was time to revive Johnny Lightning, and toy history was made.

The Johnny Lightning line of die cast cars was originally made by Topper Toys in the late 1960s. They were an early competitor to Mattel's Hot Wheels, and if not for Topper Toy's untimely bankruptcy, they may have challenged Hot Wheels at retail for decades. They matched Hot Wheels in terms of wild designs and colors and in consumer testing, they were even faster.

Sadly, Topper suffered from years of bad management, and despite having two huge hit toys in 1970 (Johnny Lightning and Dawn dolls) they had to throw in the towel. They were nearly forgotten by all but the most die-hard collectors until Tom Lowe decided the time was right to revive them. Ten years of rapid growth and unbridled success has proven him correct.

To commemorate Ten Years of Johnny Lightning, Playing Mantis founder and president Tom Lowe chose his 20 favorite cars from 10 years of Johnny Lightning production: two from each year.

The first 6 cars are available now exclusively through hobby stores like your favorite die-cast shop or on-line distributor. In addition, twelve of these will be available in the die-cast aisle at your favorite store. One car per month will be randomly inserted with the other Johnny Lightning lines.

The remaining two will be exclusive to Johnny Lightning Collector's Club members. For details on how to join, go to http://www.playingmantis.com .

Hobby Stores Only: Topper Vicious Vette '72 Color Me Gone Dodge Challenger Funny Car '54 Chevy Nomad Concept '76 Chevy Camaro Type LT '71 Mercury Cyclone Spoiler '57 Chevy Nomad

10th Anniversary Random Chase Cars: '71 Hemi Cuda (January) Draggin' Dragon (February) Ecto 1-A (March) Speed Racer Mach 5 (April) Bill Maverick Golden's Lil Red Wagon (May) Dodge Little Red Express (June) '33 Ford Panel Delivery (July) '71 Plymouth Duster (August) Corvette Grand Sport (September) '54 Corvette Corvair October) Lincoln Futura (November) '70 Ford Mustang Mach 1 (December)

Club Only: Topper Custom GTO Hummer H2

Of particular interest to collectors is the upcoming November release of the Lincoln Futura-the car that was later customized into the Batmobile.

In addition to these releases, collectors can celebrate Johnny Lightning's tenth anniversary at LightningFest, the annual gathering near Playing Mantis' corporate headquarters.

From their publicity info: "LightningFest continues to grow every yearwith more collectors, more product, more events! It's become a tradition for many, bringing their families for this once a year only event! 2004 brings more additions and a couple of changes.

"LightningFest has outgrown the Playing Mantis Headquarters! Due to the increase in participation and limited size of the Playing Mantis Headquarters, plus the addition of more events and to accommodate vendor selling opportunities, LightningFest is being moved to an offsite location. Bring your family, bring your friends, for a fun filled weekend of die-cast and model kit collector buying and activities!

"LightningFest continues to grow every yearwith more collectors, more product, more events! It's become a tradition for many, bringing their families for this once a year only event! 2004 brings more additions and a couple of changes. LightningFest has outgrown the Playing Mantis Headquarters! Due to the increase in participation and limited size of the Playing Mantis Headquarters, plus the addition of more events and to accommodate vendor selling opportunities, LightningFest is being moved to an offsite location. Bring your family, bring your friends, for a fun filled weekend of die-cast and model kit collector buying and activities!"

LightningFest will be held September 18th and 19th, 2004, in South Bend Indiana at Century Center, Hall A, located downtown. Check their website for more details.

With the new owners, the future of LightningFest is in doubt. This may be the last gathering in Indiana, so you might want to make sure not to miss it.

Even with Tom Lowe maintaining a seat on the board, some change at Playing Mantis is inevitable. Johnny Lightning will be consolidated with Racing Champions other die cast lines, and there may be some merging of the various Playing Mantis divisions with divisions of RC2 (Polar Lights model kits may merge with AMT, for instance), but with these 20 10th Anniversary cars we can salute Playing Mantis for ten wonderful years of Johnny Lightning, and hope that they stick around for many decades to come.